The beeping forklift backed up to Celeste’s two-story French Tudor house where a hole would soon be carved out of the storybook facade by the demolition team. She had instructed them to make the hole neat and tidy, but after hearing her body dimensions, the foreman had said, “We can do neat and tidy, but we can’t do small.”
“That’s a given,” she had said, a snort of derision masking her shame.
Celeste glimpsed quaking leaves and shifting clouds from her vantage point. She marked time from her sagging mattress by gazing at the framed portrait of life—bare branches and steely sky, verdant buds reaching for radiance, giant raindrops frolicking on foliage, raking light and golden leaves, and, if she was lucky, a crescent moon.
She detected rumbling motors and workmen’s harried voices as the demolition and forklift crews situated themselves. She pictured the industrial equipment the way she imagined everything in a world unfolding without her. The sexing, birthing, toiling, thieving, lusting, frolicking world outside.
Freedom, she thought. At last.
As the workmen punched through her wall, panic seized her breath. The wall—as imprisoning as it was—had shielded her from the torching glare of humanity and its hasty assumptions. Remnants of the world outside had come to her—Diet Cokes, casseroles, pastries, medicine, thrillers, romances, and musicals. That had been a comfortable existence. Now strangers were about to emerge through the hole with the question etched on their faces. Celeste loathed the question. But if she didn’t address it, people would fill in the blanks and cast scornful glances upon her.
Scorn was the one thing she couldn’t bear.
Celeste wanted to say, “It could happen to you, too.” She knew that was what people, especially women, feared. “It starts with just one box of glazed donuts, and then a multiplier effect takes hold.”
Her anxiety wasn’t so much anticipating the impending stares from the demolition crew; it was serving up a reason that would wipe their expressions clean. She thought she at least owed them a rationale. Or did she?
As they drilled, pounded, and penetrated, the breeze supplanted the stale air of her bedroom, a cacophony of odors: fermenting socks and musty underarms, vanilla and cinnamon clove potpourri, pot and patchouli, cigarettes and beer, coffee and chocolate.
She breathed in freshness.
Through the thick crumbling plaster, greenery and blooms emerged, the exuberant lilac tree’s bursts of fragrance and the neighbor’s cherry, lemon, grape lollipop garden—imported tulips—that she had bragged about during her weekly delivery of tuna noodle casseroles. Eight cheesy-fishy pies per week. Enough to feed a football team.
If it hadn’t been for the casserole delivery, there wouldn’t now be a gaping hole in the side of her house. During one of the drop-offs, her neighbor brought her six-year-old granddaughter, who stared unabashedly, but without the question heavy on her tongue. It was an altogether different one. “Will you fly my dragon kite with me? Don’t worry. It’s not the scary kind. It’s pretty pink and purple.” Her grandmother apologized with a comment, “Kids will be kids,” and flailing hand gestures, whisking the girl out of the room to preempt other inappropriate remarks.
Celeste hadn’t realized the extent to which she had been imprisoned by the question until another one was posed, a question not tinged with contempt, a question boundless, a question with wings. She pictured herself as the dragon, aloft with the breeze, climbing to dizzying heights. She soared, kissing the clouds, hugging the edge of treetops. As the currents beckoned her, she would glide and swirl, dive and twirl. When a strong draft tugged the dragon from the girl’s hands, she was released.
Once Celeste had tasted the sweetness of flight, she made the call.
Inspecting parts of the yard she hadn’t seen in years, she spotted her white lattice fence with climbing nasturtium wildly out of control, evidence that the gardener was collecting his weekly remittance while neglecting his duties. He assumed she would never know the difference from where she lay.
A bright yellow forklift carriage with a helmeted rider jerked through the hole like a dynamic component on a theatrical set. Perfectly timed, the reinforcement team exploded through her bedroom door. A crew of eight men with hazmat suits and preparedness stances surrounded her.
As though she were a bomb ready to detonate.
A string of explanations suited to her audience raced through her mind and teetered on the tip of her tongue. She sensed the shape of each one dancing in her mouth, none ready for prime time.
“Ready, set, deploy!” shouted the crew commander.
The crew slid and then yanked the tarp under her body, their gasps and grunts assaulted her, each one an unarticulated insult torpedoing through her core.
She realized this was the first time she had been touched in years. Had it not been so rough, it would have made her weep.
The tarp maneuvering process gave her more time to craft an answer to the question. The glandular rationale went over well. The public had heard such roving microphone confessions on Oprah and Jerry Springer. There was always the childhood trauma angle that elicited a cascade of pity and sympathy. Genetics were another viable route, but wrinkles of doubt formed and lingered in response.
Her preferred approach was one that resolved the line of questioning.
But the thing everyone was thinking—that was what they wanted to hear.
The forklift driver positioned the forks underneath the tarp as the eight men heave-hoed. This was her last chance to answer the question. She could either breathe compassion into their steely work crew demeanors or feed their gluttonous curiosity. Celeste inhaled sharply and half-whispered, “There’s a hole that I can’t patch alone.”
“Yes. We’re aware of that, ma’am,” said the forklift rider. Then into his headset, he announced, “Casualty secured. Lower.”
Ann Tinkham is an anti-social butterfly, pop-culturalist, virtual philosopher, ecstatic dancer, political and java junkie, and Maui-lover. Her fiction has appeared in the Adirondack Review, Word Riot, Foliate Oak, Toasted Cheese, and others. She writes about pop culture and politics at Poplitix. Her forthcoming short story collection, The Era of Lanterns and Bells, will be published later this year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.